Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Hell-bent

I found myself spending a lot of time in the car this weekend, and while I was driving, I spent much of the time thinking about the things I desire, the things I crave.  It’s a fairly eye-opening exercise, to take note of and inventory the things your mind settles on once you’ve allowed your mind to drift off, unguided.  Truly, a mirror is no real help in getting to know yourself.  But a bit of silence and the curiosity to be honest with yourself and with God…you might be surprised by what you encounter.

What do you desire?  What do you crave?  Below the surface, below all of the masks and the ‘social selves’ we project, what is it that you find yourself thinking about, returning to throughout the day, fantasizing about, hungering for? And once you have an answer, or even just a faint glimmer, ask yourself this question: “Will my deepest desires lead me into a deeper union with Jesus Christ?”

What so impresses me about this account of Satan’s temptation of Jesus is the way Jesus neutralizes these temptations.  Though Jesus could have simply banished Satan with a single word, or more than banished him, written him out of the very fabric of existence, he trusted not in his own power, but in the power and presence of the Living God, whose fullness was pleased to dwell in Jesus.  He was so in-tune, so focused, that his resistance to temptation flowed from beyond himself, and revealed a passion for remaining faithful to the God of Israel, whose covenant and commands were explored in the Book of Deuteronomy, the very Scripture Jesus uses to silence Satan.  No matter how desirable a loaf of bread must have been, or how satisfying it would have been to reign over the earth as a dictator, Jesus refused to let any desires, cravings, or temptations stand in the way of his union with the God of Israel.  That, above all, guided and ruled his actions during those tumultuous and terrible 40 days.

What makes temptation, and the subsequent desire, so insidious and dangerous is the way temptation is often a half-truth, a seduction, a twisted reflection of something good.  He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread. Knowing him to be hungry beyond belief, Satan’s approach was to appeal to the basic human need to eat.  Jesus, whose hunger pains must have surely produced some sort of euphoria, could have easily been convinced to use his God-given power to satisfy this basic human need.  And right there is what I mean, that temptations are usually half-truths, seductive and twisted reflections of something good.  For Jesus to have satisfied that basic, and fundamentally good, need would have been a failure to remain true to the Spirit’s leading and guiding.  It would have been a failure of nerve on the part of Jesus to see beyond the illusion that Satan’s temptation, however rational and satisfying it may have seemed, would have produced anything as significant as his deep union with God.  Jesus answered him, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone.'" In other words, there is something greater than the satisfaction of even my basic human needs, and in this moment my allegiance is to that something greater.

When we satisfy temptations, cravings, or desires that produce something opposed to virtue, however innocuous and innocent they may seem, we risk moving further away from the deep union with the Living God we were made for.  The logic of Satan’s temptations make this abundantly clear.  What began with the simple temptation to create a loaf of bread ends with a pathetically misguided attempt to convince Jesus to kill himself: “Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Once again, this temptation is rooted in a half-truth, a perversion of something beautiful.  For it is a beautiful idea, the protection of the Lord and his legion of angels taken from the Psalmist.  But the temptation to test God’s love was a perversion of that truth which, had Jesus listened to this half-truth, would have resulted in his untimely and inglorious death.  What began with something small, innocuous, insignificant even, this loaf of bread, blossoms into an attempt to convince Jesus to destroy himself.

That’s the danger of repeatedly giving into desires and cravings which push us further from union with the Living God.  We cease to be as alive as we could be if we were strong enough to resist the impulses that lead us to self-destruction and separation from God. And so, again we are invited to ask ourselves, “Will my deepest desires lead me into a deeper union with Jesus Christ?”  What began on Ash Wednesday continues through the next 40 days, our own journey into the desert. And here, we aren’t simply talking about giving up chocolate, which might benefit our health.  Or setting the iPad down before bed, which would allow us to sleep more gently.  We are talking about matters of life and death, of pulling back the curtain on our hearts, peering deeply therein, and figuring out what areas need sharpening so that we might more fully experience union with the Living God. Lent can truly be a season of self-discovery if we are willing to open ourselves up to the life-giving Spirit, the same Spirit that lead Jesus into the wilderness, that Spirit of God which both de-stabilizes our lives and centers them at the same time.  May this be for us a season of unflinching honesty, a season of afflicted spiritual malaise, and a season that leads us deeper into communion with the One who will bring us out of the tomb with him come Easter Day.

*A sermon preached at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM on February 14, 2016.  The texts were Deuteronomy 26:1-11, Romans 10:8b-13, and Luke 4:1-13.

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